Blog Sans Frontieres

Chris Harris's Blog Archive: October 2006

October? Most of the usual obsessions crept in - lots about space (particularly Mars), as well as the release of one of my favourite films on DVD, discussions of photography, blogging, and writing - including getting ready for next month's National Novel Writing Month. I also got a first look at the multi-touch interface that would eventually conquer the world.

And there was weather.

Rather a lot of weather, in fact.


NASA's Astronomy Picture Of the Day (APOD) today was taken in Budapest, and it's pretty amazing, once you realise what you're looking at - go and have a look.


Thanks to William Gibson, who blogged an amazing presentation about a highly intuitive user interface at the TED conference: it involves you using your fingers. When this is available commercially, it's going to be great fun.


Thanks to Justin at Linkbunnies, I've been reading a transcript of a speech given recently to a conference about online entertainment by Courtney Love. It has to be said that I can't really classify myself as a fan, but after reading this I have a lot of respect for her. Condensed version: popular music is, effectively, the new slave trade. If you're a musician thinking about getting into the business, you must be insane, because it's the record labels that make millions, not the bands. How the hell can Toni Braxton end up bankrupt after selling $188 million worth of albums?

Read Courtney's speech, and find out what goes on...


Some of Sacha Baron Cohen's victims are getting a bit heated about being duped into appearing in the Borat movie. Doesn't look like they'll get very far, though: the disclaimer form they signed looks like it does a very good job of covering all the bases. Moral of story: if you are asked to sign something, make sure you read it first. Oh - and if you're going to be an idiot, don't do it on camera.


The clocks go back one hour tonight and we return to GMT. The BBC is running a story about the hazards the change creates, but as I read the page I realised that the clock in their picture looked rather familiar. It's the Tolsey Clock up the road in Wotton!


The latest viral video, which is of a baby panda sneezing and scaring the crap out of its parent. Nice.


Scientists have revealed that part of the system of currents that brings us the warm water of the Gulf Stream shut down for ten days in 2004 - which left them rather surprised, to say the least. I've blogged about this before, but there's a big difference between "could happen" and "has already happened once." Rather worrying.


Pissed up stupid bloke steals glasses of hapless charity worker in Wrexham. Pissed up stupid bloke puts video of exploit up on Youtube. Pissed up stupid bloke gets arrested by North Wales police, who watched said video on Youtube. Ah, as Woody Allen used to say. If only real life was like this.


Obviously realising how upset people were that the story about them threatening lighthouses turned out to be fake, the US Navy have redeemed themselves by threatening to blow up a ferry on the River Clyde. Bless; how thoughtful of them.


Gloucestershire has its fair share of interesting stories - hardly surprising when the "most haunted pub in Britain" is just up the road in Wotton - but I hadn't realised how many local stories of black dogs there were until I read the BBC's story on them... Fascinating stuff, but do you think the fact that it's halloween next week has anything to do with this?


How sad can you get? Today I blog the passing of my office coffee cup, which I've had for the past eight years or so. It's got a big crack in it, so sentiment or not, it went in the bin. Ten years ago, some people (although not me, it has to be said) used the mug you used at work to make a bit of a statement. The idea was, as far as I could make out, to use one of those "gizzit" mugs you get at exhibitions, and the more obscure the better. Another colleague had a mug commemorating the marriage of Charles and Diana, and that was seen as being profoundly ironic, even eight years ago.

These days, though, it's all got a little too clever, and the fact that Think Geek now sell mugs with a caffeine molecule on them means that this particular activity has been taken pretty much as far as it can go. I'm still going to have to choose my replacement mug carefully, though. It's the principle of the thing, after all.


No other word for it, really. It's all very well using balsa wood and tissue paper to build a model aircraft that's large enough to sit in, but think about it - how well did the ones you built as a kid actually fly? How much control did you have? And where did they end up? In what condition?

The wings used to fall off the models I built with alarming regularity, so Mr Clews had a lucky escape, if you ask me.


Good title for a book about the creation of the universe, really. This one's written by Sir Patrick Moore and Chris Lintott from the BBC's astronomy programme The Sky at Night and Brian May from Queen. Yes, really. He's just gone back to university to finish the Ph.D in astrophysics he started just before Queen's musical success kicked off, and much kudos to him for doing so. He's the second celebrity I've read about who's done this recently - the other one is Martin Sheen, who is currently attending university in Ireland as a mature student. What with that and Bill Murray turning up at a student's party in St. Andrews, university life has obviously improved recently.


Blog updates might be a bit irregular for the next few weeks or months or whatever, as my copy of The War Chiefs, the expansion pack for Age of Empires III, arrived yesterday.

It's good.

There are ninjas.


Crikey, it doesn't seem like a week since I was over in Norfolk with my parents. I don't know where this month has gone, but it went there very quickly. This weekend has been pretty quiet so far by comparison, as I've been indoors all day. I've spent most of it putting laundry through the washing machine, tidying up, and cooking. I've just had haggis for tea, which was really good. There's half of it left, too, so that's lunch for tomorrow sorted as well.

I have a feeling I'll be staying inside tomorrow, too. The forecast is for gale force winds and rain, so maybe we're finally saying goodbye to the summer weather. It's still unseasonably warm, and I can't remember the last time I got to the end of October without having to put the central heating on. But looking at the clouds scudding by outside just now, they were angry shades of yellow and pink, and the prospects of a quiet night don't look good.


OK, let's get the obvious stuff out of the way first: it's Blog Britain day today. You can find out more at the History Matters website, which invites you to write your entry (and you can even submit it in Welsh, which is rather nifty) but I'll be keeping my blog here for the moment.


As you might have noticed from the lack of activity, I've been away for a few days catching up with my parents, and my sister and her family. They all live in Norfolk, so I don't get to see them that often. We had a good time, ate and drank a lot, and I did my usual computer support tasks on Dad's computer, moved some furniture around for Mum, and stocked up on bird seed from the little shop in Holt that I've been going to for years. The weather was rather changeable - Friday was lovely, but Saturday was a bit bleak.


If you haven't already seen them, you should wander over to the Rogue Pictures website and watch the teaser trailers for the next film from Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright, Hot Fuzz. From the people who brought you Shaun of the Dead, this looks every bit as funny. No, cancel that - it looks even funnier. Roll on February 2007.


Thanks to Crash on the WGB for this one - a mystery catamaran photographed in Ilwaco Harbour, Washington state that has to be the coolest-looking sailing vessel I have *ever* seen. I want to know more.


I've actually had time this week to catch up on reading some academic papers at work - I'm trying to get back up to speed with recent developments in the field of e-Learning, which can be fascinating, honestly. One of the more interesting writers I've discovered is Bonnie Nardi, who works in the Infomatics Department of the University of California at Irvine, and while I was reading about activity theory today I discovered a paper she co-wrote on the phenomenon of blogging, called I'm Blogging This. It's a closer look at the reasons why people blog, and given the fact that I've been running this one for over three years now, I found it really interesting. It includes a discussion of the variety of motives that people have for blogging, and I realised as I went through them all that I agreed with almost all of them. This blog has aspects of the online diary (although I've decided that nobody would have the slightes interest in my own daily activities) and it's a place where I can take the opportunity to gather my thoughts each day and examine how things are going. I write for a small and discerning audience, and I have a clear mental image of them ('cos that's you, basically) rather than some indeterminate or vague group of generic people. I write to try and improve my writing skills. I write to communicate about events or things that I think might be interesting or deserve a slightly wider coverage than they're got already. And there's also a certain amount of catharsis in letting some aspects of modern civilisation know exactly what I think about them. So it was rather nice to read up on some academic research about folks like me who blog, and realise that I'm no stranger than they are. Even the ranting part seems reassuringly common.

And of course, given the paper's title, how could I not mention all of the above as I sit down this evening to write today's entry?

HAPPY BIRTHDAY Rob and Ruth, who are 17 today. Have a good one, troops!


Thinking of buying a TV any time soon? Well, according to Arasor International, you might want to hang on for a while. Laser TVs will be half the price, and consume a quarter of the power, of equivalent LCD or plasma sets, and they're likely to be available for Christmas next year. Slashdotters wanted to know if this was just hype ahead of their forthcoming IPO on the Australian Stock Exchange, or the real deal? Certainly laser manufacturer Novalux were demonstrating the technology a few months ago, and creating a good buzz in the process.

All I know is I'll be buying one if they're as good as they're made out to be...


I don't have an iPod, but Steven Levy's article on the thing's shuffle feature in Sunday's Observer Magazine was absolutely fascinating. Other people clearly found it fascinating too, because it's currently the second most read article on the Guardian's website. Levy decided that his iPod liked Steely Dan way too much for the shuffle feature to be truly random. But unlike the rest of us, he was in a position to do something about it, as he was assigned to interview Apple's CEO at MacWorld in 2004. So he asked Steve Jobs about it, and Jobs - and this is why I think he's one of the coolest bosses in history - responded very simply: "Let's find out." Five minutes later Levy was talking to the programmers at Apple who had written the software routines. It is random, they said. Trust us.

But Levy wasn't convinced, especially after his next iPod displayed a disturbing fondness for the music of Bruce Springsteen.

The problem, it turns out, is that the human mind doesn't get true randomness. We try to impose patterns on things which have no pattern, and we interpret statistical normality as something significant and unusual. Randomness doesn't mean you won't get groups of things occurring together. This, after all, is why gamblers can have winning streaks. It's also why people mistakenly believe that any event based on randomness can become due if it hasn't happened for a long time.

So what Apple has done with the latest version of the shuffle feature is very clever. They've provided an option for the user to "tweak" its randomness. You can still have a genuinely random distribution as before, but you can also get your iPod to filter its playlist to take out the occurrences that might be percieved as non-random (such as getting nine songs by The Boss in a collection of 118). In other words, the manufacturer has made the randomness less random in order to make it seem more random. How crazy is that?


Given how sad I am about the film in a know-every-line, anorak-filled trivia hound kind of way, I suppose it's predictable that I had to buy the "new" DVD release of Blade Runner. The new disc has just joined my collection of previous releases; I've been buying the film since the original VHS tape came out. My copy of the latest version arrived yesterday and I sat down last night to compare it with the old DVD.

For a while, I actually started feeling annoyed by the damn thing. For a start, you have to do lots of button pressing to select which part of the world you're from. The UK appears on the third screen of options, and you have to laboriously page through and select it before you can continue. Presumably whoever set the DVD up hadn't heard about such things as default selections - or maybe Warners were just too stingy to come up with a release just for the UK.

But primarily, my annoyance was thanks to the "you are supporting terrorism through piracy" advert that seems to be on every bloody DVD Warner Brothers and Fox make these days. I bet you know the one - it has captions such as "you wouldn't steal a car" accompanied by deafening techno music. I have now got to the point of finding it not only annoying, but also both offensive and patronising. Think about it: I've bought the DVD - the DVD I am watching is the company's official release. I paid them for it; I have given them my money. Yet they're treating me like someone who has bought a dodgy version off some car boot sale. It's a sorry state of affairs when something you watch for entertainment starts off by accusing you of sponsoring terrorism. Film companies, like the music business, have developed a very skewed and perverted view of what constitutes acceptable customer relations since 9/11.

I don't mind them adding a leaflet inside the box - and yes, there was an anti-piracy leaflet enclosed, which initially surprised me because I mistook it for a booklet of chapter titles like we used to get back in the good old days; WB were of course too tight to provide any bonus material like that. But putting a noisy, unavoidable message across, over and over again, is bordering on psychosis. In fact, purely as a result of having that little bit of film inflicted on me for the hundred or so times I've had to suffer through it, if someone offered me the opportunity to buy a version of the film which *didn't* spout self-righteous adverts at me every bloody time I played it, I would now pick that one instead, regardless of its source. Guess which large major companies are the ones I'll feel least sorry for when their customers eventually desert them?

At least on this disk you can speed the thing up, even if you can't skip it completely. Finally, you get to the menu, which gives you just the bare-bones options of language and scene selections - there are no extras - and then you can start watching the film. Once the film starts, the annoying bits are forgotten (apart from a slight disappointment that there's still only a Dolby 2.0 surround audio track). The improvements are instantly obvious, as the opening titles have been redone. The originals wobbled quite noticably, and the "Los Angeles, November 2019" caption in particular was quite jittery. That jitter is now absent. When the film itself starts, it becomes even more apparent that the mastering this time round has been done by someone who knew what they were doing - for instance they must actually have cleaned the print before they started. Watching the original DVD I'm amazed how much crap there was on the print - you can see frames covered in hair, dust, speckles, you name it - and they're missing from the new release. The colours are brighter and there's better contrast, too. Deep, deep joy.

In short, once you get past all the stuff that the film company has helpfully added to "enhance" your viewing experience, the film itself is wonderful. But really, though, this is the sort of release the film should have got when the original DVD came out seven years ago. All told, it's a very poor treatment by today's standards, even if it's typical of most things that Warners put out on DVD. Luckily, there is another DVD release due next year, and that sounds as if it will finally provide the sort of treatment that this classic film deserves. As a result, I'd classify this version as a requirement for obsessives like me only. The rest of you should continue to wait for what you know you deserve, with your fingers crossed tightly.


One hundred and eighty seven miles above the surface of Mars, NASA's latest orbiter has been trying its high resolution camera out. And it's taken a photo of the Opportunity Lander sitting at the edge of Victoria Crater. The picture still has a few rough edges, so expect to see an even better version appear once it's been cleaned up, but just as it is, the quality of the image is stunning. You can even see the lander's tyre tracks stretching away behind it!


...but I've signed up for National Novel Writing Month. I've always wanted to write a novel, and I've started four or five, but I've come to the conclusion that I need some form of external deadline to make me see things through to the bitter end, and this seemed as good as any. I've even bought the official NaNoWriMo book, "No Plot? No Problem!" by Chris Baty, the guy who started the whole thing back in 1999 and I am psyching myself up for the first of November, when it all kicks off.

More to the point, by clicking on the link above throughout November, you'll be able to see how I'm doing. There's no escape; I can't back out, and now I can't even hide how I do. What *have I let myself in for?


Either I'm coming down with something or I'm not getting enough sleep, because I've felt decidedly below par today. Mind you, my day was obviously going a lot better than it was for the young lads sitting in their wrecked car on the opposite carriageway of the ring road this evening. Call it intuition, or the fact that they were surrounded by cops, or the fact that there was a big POLICE AWARE sticker on the window of the driver's door, but I have a feeling they will be having a *much* more interesting evening than me. And they're quite welcome to it.

I think I'll be having an early night once I've checked out my new Blade Runner DVD. Yes, I've bought it, although I know the super-duper release will finally hit the shops in a few months. You're talking to a guy who has both the original version and the director's cut on videocassette, and the original DVD release as well. Unlike George Lucas, I certainly don't begrudge Ridley Scott any money he makes from the re-release. How could I not buy this one?


This year's IgNobel prizes have been announced, and judging by the picture the BBC used for the event it looked like a fun time was had by all. It says a lot about the awards that eight of the ten winners paid their own expenses to attend the prizegiving ceremony. Mind you, there are signs that they've gone for the popular vote this year - I'd actually heard of two of the papers (How many photos must be taken to almost ensure no-one in a group shot has their eyes closed, by Nic Svenson and Piers Barnes, and Why woodpeckers do not get headaches, by Ivan Schwab and the late Philip RA May). And of course, the Ig Nobel Peace Prize winner has had a lot of press coverage, and - somewhat ironically - even spawned a mobile phone ringtone. Who said science was boring?


Thanks to Gromit of the WGB for the link to this fantastic article by Ray Bradbury on censorship. For those of you who don't know who he is, Ray Bradbury is one of the most poetic writers living today. His novel, Fahrenheit 451, is probably the most frightening speculation on the future of censorship ever written, and in the decades since it was first published we've edged closer and closer to letting the nightmare become reality. 451 degrees Fahrenheit is the temperature at which paper burns, and the novel is about a future where being a fireman means that it's your job to burn books. All books. Because knowledge is not something that the story's future populace should have any need for, not as far as their government is concerned. But Mr. Bradbury recently discovered that his publisher had - no doubt without the faintest sense of irony - censored the work.

I've never liked bullies. These days, they're more prevalent than ever, and I'm not just talking about children at school; there are a lot of adults out there who resort to bullying to reinforce their point of view. This, folks, is where political correctness will ultimately lead you. Where directors revisit their films and decide to remove guns from the hands of the bad guys in case the children are frightened, and cut swear words in case the children copy them. Where directors chicken out of letting their hero shoot first. Where craven broadcasters eviscerate Tom and Jerry cartoons because some demented parent complains that they show a cat smoking, for Christ's sake. That one really bugs me, because it means that as far as that person is concerned, it's still totally OK for the cat to be smacked on the head with a bowling ball by a psychotic mouse, folded, spindled or otherwise mutilated, and even blown up with dynamite but it's not OK for smoking to be shown on screen. Reading about Bradbury's experiences of censorship in its many shapes and forms, you really do get a sense of the sort of loony world-view that people develop as justification for their actions.

And if you think this is all mildly amusing, think again. One French philosopher is in hiding after receiving death threats. A German production of one of Mozart's operas was cancelled after extremists made a threat to blow up the building it was to be performed in. This sort of thing happens all too often, and it happens anywhere. As Ray say's it's a mad world, and it will indeed get even madder unless we say "enough." So, if you've got friends who are bright enough to still believe that reading a book is a form of entertainment, send them an email linking to Ray's words.

Get 'em annoyed. Get 'em doing something about it.

And help stop that mindless slide into senility and apathy.


One of my neighbours, who has a different ISP, was upgraded to ADSL Max on the local telephone exchange a couple of months ago. I got home tonight to find that my router's connection status was reading 2400 kbps downstream and 448 kbps upstream, so it looks like Demon have finally caught up.

Good news? Well, let's emphasise that it "looks like" I've caught up. Running a couple of speed tests just now indicated that the actual data rate I'm getting hasn't actually changed at all. I'll have to keep an eye on things over the next few days, and I'll be keeping my fingers tightly crossed. It would be nice to see some noticeable improvement, I must admit, but I'm pleased (in a mildly cynical fashion) that the worst case scenario doesn't look like it's happened: some people have lost their connections altogether after being "upgraded." That's the way it goes, I guess.


Last year I went to the World of Learning exhibition at the NEC, and while I wandered round the stands, a salesman tried to get me interested in a device called a Gizmondo. It was an ugly-looking, hideously expensive handheld gadget that was being touted as the future of mobile training, which was a bit of a stretch to say the least - it didn't appear to have any really interesting software applications available at all. It may have had a motion sensor and built-in GPS, but it had a limited number of rather fiddly controls and a not particularly impressive display, and quite frankly given the choice of that or a GameBoy DS it's Nintendo I'd have given my money to.

So what has happened to the Gizmondo since then, I hear you ask. Haddock's blogs page posted a link today to Wired magazine, who provide the conclusion of this story. It's a heady tale involving wrecked supercars, a mystery man called Dietrich, and the most spectacular business debacle since the South Sea Bubble. It's well worth a read, believe me.


Well, four teacups to be exact. Sam Javanrouh's photo blog yesterday featured his amazing picture of a stunning car balanced on some equally expensive-looking china dinnerware. As Alexei Sayle said in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, "...and I even like the colour."


When I got home this evening my set of Flickr mini cards had arrived, courtesy of As I said on my post on Flickr just now, they're like little thin business cards, with my contact details on one side and one of my photographs on the other. The quality is excellent, and their prices are extremely reasonable so I've just gone back to moo with an order for a hundred more. I'll be using them to plug my Flickr photostream as well as this website, and I am of course open to commissions for photoshoots, weddings, parties...


Uh oh. I am seriously worried by the news today that the developers of Microsoft's next Halo game will be Ensemble Studios.

I am worried, because Ensemble's product line has been responsible for entire days of my life going missing. I bought Age of Empires when it came out. And the expansion pack. And Age of Empires II and its expansion pack. And Age of Mythology, the Titans expansion pack, and most recently Age of Empires III (boy, that's a flash-heavy site, that one). The expansion pack for that should be turning up on my doormat in the next couple of weeks, too - so the last thing I need to know is that they're releasing a game based on the world of Halo. I think I'm going to have to give up sleep.


Crikey, October's certainly got off to a blustery beginning. A tornado was spotted off the Sussex coast this morning, there's been some flooding up the road in Gloucestershire and it's been thundering here on and off since I woke up just before 9am, although at the moment the sun is streaming through the windows.

Is this an early sign that this winter's going to be wetter than the last one? Difficult to tell, according to the Met Office's seasonal forecast, which at the moment says "it could be wetter, or drier." As a whole, we can expect either warmer, average, or colder temperatures, although later on this winter there will be "an increase in the frequency of cold snaps." Gosh, what are the chances of that, eh?


Got a dog? Then be afraid. Be very afraid.


Tesco have decided that office software is too expensive, so they are going to start selling their own brand, for under £20. Now, I'm lucky enough to work for a company that joined Microsoft's affiliate program, which means I can buy an absolutely legit copy of Office Professional for £17, and at that price I think it's a good deal - but most people don't have that option, so I think Tesco should do very well here. I'll have to keep an eye on what they offer for photo editing, as you can never have too many graphics packages.


If the EU has decided that the requirements of the US security services for airlines to provide information on all passengers flying to the United States (including their credit card details, interestingly enough) are illegal, and Britain is in the EU, why does the fact that the Department of Transport are issuing an air navigation order make the slightest bit of difference?

I don't understand this at all: if the order "allows airlines to pass information to the US without running into legal trouble under data protection laws" doesn't that just mean they've decided to ignore EU law? It sounds suspiciously like it to me. Maybe I'm just being thick.